What I’ve Learned After 3 Years as an Expat in Asia

Surprise! I’m leaving Asia (for now) to move back to the US. I have big, messy, very mixed feelings about this move. Of course I’m glad to be closer to my family and oldest friends, but I’m also nearly certain I will want to live as an expat again. Soon. There’s a lot more to this story that I’m not willing to put here, so let’s chat instead about my time in Asia. Here’s a quick summary of my expat learnings.

1.How to be an adult again.

This has so many parts. When I arrived in Singapore, and again in Thailand I felt like a child. Outside of the expat bubble I couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t use utensils, didn’t have the right set of table manners, and had the social skills of a toddler. Heck, I even had to learn to use the toilet (squat toilets) again. 3 years later I’ve maybe graduated to teenage level on at least a few of those. And, with the exception of those nightmarish Korean flat metal chopsticks, I’m an adult again with my dining utensils. But suffice to say it’s been a humbling experience.

Meanwhile I’ve become comfortable with multiple banking systems, utility companies, government paperwork (SO much paperwork!) and more. I’ve also learned more practical skills, like avoiding corruption, paring down my belongings, and how to be my own financial planner. Moving abroad is ‘balancing a budget and checkbook’ lessons on steroids.

2. The stories about the dating desert for Western women in Asia are largely true.

I need to say right off that I’m speaking about meeting long-term romantic partners, not meeting people in general. Expats and those interested in foreign cultures and people are a fascinating group. I’ve met and made some wonderful friends. And there are absolutely exceptions to the widespread stories of the dating desert. But in general, yeah. It’s a desert.

I mean, unless you’re into the sexpat culture I suppose. But that’s a whole separate conversation.

3. Much to my chagrin, many of the American stereotypes (arrogant, loud, etc) often appear warranted.

There are two big areas where I flinch and can pick out the Americans with no effort. One is global news: many Americans are frighteningly myopic, and the other is a general attitude of such certainty and confidence… that it typically comes across as arrogance. Even if it’s not meant to.

Just a few weeks ago I was sitting in a market research session behind one-way glass. With me was a translator, a visiting American colleague, and about 10 of my Chinese colleagues who are our market experts and spend time daily with customers. Over the course of the day, we watched a number of customers comment on our products and potential products without knowing we were there.

At one point my American colleague stated with utter certainty how the Chinese market worked and would react to certain conditions. My jaw dropped. He had gained this certainty after watching three interviews plus online research. (He’s never lived abroad anywhere, much less China.) The fact that he didn’t even turn to our Chinese colleagues and frame things as “this is what I’m hearing, does that ring true to you?” was appalling. And I see this kind of certainty bordering on hubris played out constantly in so many situations.

Of course Americans are not the only ones to do this, but we’ve earned the reputation for it honestly. Ouch.

3. My professional behavior has shifted. Possibly not for the better (at least in terms of returning to the US.)

I compromise better nowadays. I show my emotions less, especially at the office. This one is especially influenced by Thailand where contentment and ‘happiness’ are the most culturally acceptable emotions. I still come across as the crazy American at times, but a Thai colleague pointed out that I’m much quieter in my emotions now than I was when I arrived in the country. Unfortunately in the US, this can be interpreted differently: I could be reserved, standoffish, or simply seem unengaged.

I am also much less certain in general. It’s hard for me to know if this one is due to professional experience or the influence of a foreign culture. But after living and working in several very different markets, I’m not nearly so quick to pass judgement or provide ad hoc analyses in the moment. I tend to analyze, evaluate, and chase down at least a few hypotheses first. Put simply, I’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted a cultural situation or foreign market enough not to want to do it more.

4. I have much firmer opinions on the glass ceiling, women in upper levels of management, and unconscious sexism in the workplace.

While Singapore had its challenges, my role in Thailand was the hardest. In some ways these Asian offices are what I’ve heard American offices were like in the 1950s. After about 4 months in Thailand as the only (and only female) Westerner I realized that some were under the impression my extra X chromosome magically granted me abilities. Apparently, the XX setup improves note-taking abilities, working the conference phone, and organizing coffee for executives.

I also had to endure a constant barrage of condescending comments from a (male) colleague without my degrees who was also five years my junior. He would frequently comment how I just “didn’t understand how business really works.” The “little lady” sentence-finish was usually only inferred. Other days I sat through staff promotion committees and listened to male colleagues comment on the attractiveness of female staff. That’s the tip of the iceberg. And, I experienced this while a head of department, and on the country executive team.

Handling situations with my peers was quite the learning curve. And learning to silently change my manager’s behavior towards me was a similarly steep learning curve. For the rest of it I mostly learned to let it roll off of me.

Of course in other ways, especially in South East Asia, the professional landscape is incredibly empowering. Female leadership rates massively outstrip those in the US, and there is no cognitive dissonance between feminine apparel and intelligence. So it’s a complex picture. Having to tease out what I was experiencing, what I could tolerate, and what I could learn from changed me profoundly and clarified many opinions I have on sexism in the workplace.

Further, dealing with active and transparent sexism has made it much easier for me to spot and have an opinion on the often subtler sexism I encounter in the US.

5. Living abroad has been a personal creative renaissance.

If you aren’t already aware, earlier this year I launched my first portfolio website here: Kate Pientka Photography. As of this post, all of the photos on the site were created over the last three years. I made a resolution when I moved to Singapore to travel somewhere every month, and I did it. But after 12 months I slowed down the pace of travel and instead upped my creative engagement with these incredible cultures and destinations. Plus, though it took me a while to get settled in Bangkok, the move to Thailand was the best thing that could have happened to me creatively. I only needed to stumble out my front door to see interesting things and there are so many creatives based in the city. Luckily, I also found a few mentors in Thailand and Singapore who have really helped nudge me along.

6. I have a much stronger tolerance for chaos.

Not only is moving internationally stressful and a bit chaotic, I spent my time working in emerging markets. It’s actually something I very much enjoy, because the environment is filled with energy, enthusiasm, and opportunity. But at the same time nothing is accomplished in a straight line. This is because processes, infrastructure, and even culture haven’t all updated or aren’t all in the same place. Many things that I took for granted in the US don’t even have equivalent above-board processes in these markets (like picking up a package at the post office.) So it takes a lot of patience, training, and time to work through it all.

But since I survived or endured each situation, I am markedly calmer. I’m less easy to ruffle. And I’m considerably more determined to make things work and succeed because I’ve already been able to manage past insanity. I know it will eventually work.

7. I’m much clearer on the American part of my identity.

Chatting with people when I first moved abroad initially landed me in a number of awkward conversations. Particularly as an expat during the 2016 Presidential campaign. For one, I would go to the office each day and work with several lovely colleagues who also happened to be Muslim and wear hijabs. Meanwhile the global news was broadcasting hate speech and cheering American crowds. This became one of the best experiences for me though. Despite my initial fears, most people I speak to around the world are not only good, but they don’t instantly judge by citizenship.

But that led to harder conversations sometimes. Because when you identify as American, there is an expectation that you can explain America. There was a lot I had to re-study and consider, despite years of high school US History classes.

I was once asked in Egypt a few years back if the poverty shown in the movie Winter’s Bone¬†was real or just Hollywood. Then he asked how it was possible that a country as wealthy as the US could have people living in such conditions. Or when I visited Hanoi with a friend and we had to not only relearn the causes of the Vietnam War, but reconcile our history lessons with our guides’ perspective and own history.

Finally, Thailand’s lese majeste and censorship rules deeply drove home the privilege of free speech back in the US on a very personal level.

8. I’m much more dependent.

Now you may be laughing, since it could appear from all my wild solo wandering that I embody independence. Not to mention moving to the far side of the world seems to indicate the same. And to an extent you are correct. I’m less and less afraid to follow my own drive and internal compass. But there’s nothing like the sense of dislocation and being a stranger in a strange land to make one realize just how much they need other people.

Plus, one of the things I adore about Asia and being a woman in Asia is the community-orientation. In Thailand I had to seriously adjust my expectations. Not only was I a foreigner that most nice locals just wanted to help – or perhaps pity when I looked particularly lost – but I was also a head of department. Which meant I not only needed lead a team and care for them, but they felt they needed to respect and care for me.

After more than a few awkward moments we settled into a lovely family-like structure with it’s own successes and squabbles. But it meant the world to me when they demonstrated their awareness of even the little things. For example, my team noticed quickly that I love mint. Mint tea, mint chocolate cookies, etc. But mint is HARD to find in Thailand. (I hear it’s because children’s medicine is often flavored this way in Thailand so no one likes it much as an adult.) And yet, little mint items would regularly appear on my desk whenever anyone traveled.

And this is only one example. When I had surgery, my boss sent over his housekeeper to help clean up my apartment and make the beds. One of my colleagues went to the store for emergency groceries for me. My team all appeared at the door one day with gifts and to reassure themselves I was ok. And this was only two months into my time in Thailand. Their example made me better at reaching out to care for them, but also taught me to let go more and not attempt to do absolutely everything on my own.

So finally…

I’m hoping to move abroad again soon, but at the very least I plan to keep my work focused heavily on foreign markets and cultures. In the meantime I will definitely keep traveling, so the blog will keep going while I move through these phases.



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